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Knowledge stops culture clash

Published on Friday, 29 Oct 2010
Illustration: Bay Leung
It is crucial to recognise that people from various cultures communicate in different ways.
Photo: Jonathan Wong

Effective cross-cultural understanding is essential when conducting business in a city as cosmopolitan as Hong Kong. "Because of Hong Kong's history as a trade port, its workforce has probably been exposed to international influences more than many other places in Asia," says Alice Kaushal, managing director of Refine Consulting, which runs courses on cross-cultural communication and business etiquette.

"But the average employee is caught between the cultural protocol of places such as the mainland that emphasises relationships and more task-focused business environments such as Germany or America."

Kaushal says Hong Kong employees may perceive the mainland to be slower paced due to the time invested in building business relationships. However, the same workers might find a German boss too blunt in wanting his staff to address problems directly.

Referring to the Geert Hofstede Index, a study on the relationship between culture and business, Kaushal explains how societal attitudes have permeated the workplace, setting the stage for an international business world in which understanding relative cultural values about community, hierarchy and the importance of relationships is key to workplace interaction.

"In low-context cultures found in places such as Germany, Scandinavian countries and Australia, people are considered more explicit in their verbal messages," Kaushal says. "But in high-context cultures, of which Japan and the mainland are prime examples, communication is perceived as less direct and there is a greater reliance on the unsaid message."

She says people working in a global business environment need to understand these differences. For instance, a boss who asks a Hong Kong employee if he is OK may not get a straight answer because the worker does not want to criticise the company or challenge authority.

Billing itself as "the world's local bank", HSBC has made intercultural training an integral part of staff development. The company has launched an online "culture wizard" learning portal on its intranet globally that it says provides information on countries, cultures and different working methods.

"Employees can find important pointers on social and business practices, rules for communication, as well as travel and safety recommendations to help them prepare for international business trips or entertaining foreign guests," says Michael Fraccaro, HSBC's head of learning, talent, resourcing and organisation development for Asia-Pacific on culture wizard and diversity. "[It] is vital that everyone understands different cultures, world views, religions and customs, and builds on this diversity to evolve new ideas and ways of working together to benefit our customers and staff." 

Kaushal stresses that gaining such insights into the cultures of colleagues is a necessary first step towards a culturally sensitive workplace.

"Ask and display curiosity. Be guided by your colleagues and friends. The internet also provides huge volumes of information for the interested," she says.


Executive faux pas

  • A long lunch may be de rigueur in the Philippines for building up ties, but it might be viewed as time-wasting by Americans
  • An Asian handshake may be deemed limp in North America or Germany and that can affect how assertive one appears
  • Leaving a business dinner right after the meal ends is counterproductive in Europe as that is often when business is discussed

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